Her name was Vedree. She works as a masseuse in a salon in Seminyak Bali. She is 27 and is three months’ pregnant with her first child. She gets married to her fiance in two weeks but doesn’t want to take time off work because she won’t get paid.
Her doctor told her she should rest during her first trimester, but she can’t afford to do that either. Vedree also does pedicures and manicures on rich tourists like me. Of the $10 I pay the salon for each treatment she gets 55 cents.
She told me she dreamed of going overseas but she knew that would never happen as it was hard enough earning enough money to feed her family. Her husband-to-be washes motorbikes for a living – also on commission – so she knows that her family will never have much more than the basic necessities.
She is thankful for the job she has though. She said it was better than begging in the streets. She wishes she could work in one of the hotels – just like the one I am staying in next door. Staff there get paid a salary, she said, but they also need a university education to serve drinks and food to a variety of white people who come to relax there for a week or for a month.
But she will never be able to work there because she only did four years of school. Her family is from a small village in the north and her parents had three daughters and one son. They only had enough money to send one child to secondary school so in Bali, like so many other countries, it was their son that got that opportunity.
Vedree told me she only wants to have two children because then, she hoped, she might somehow make enough money to send both of them to school – even if they are girls – so they will have a better life than she has. I told I her that I thought all parents wanted better for their children no matter where they came from and we smiled at each other in mutual agreement.
I was leaving for the airport that day but told her I would be back next year. She said she was only taking one week off work when the baby came so she would see me then. When I left I gave her all the money in my wallet – about $40 to me but probably a month’s wages to her – and told her it was a present for her wedding. She cried a little. As I walked out the door, so did I.
His name was Jo Jo. He is 28 and works as an exotic dancer in a gay bar in Bali. He is straight. He is from Java, but had to leave his village because there is no work. He said Bali is not much better but at least he has a job now. He gets paid to dance in his underwear on top of the bar and in a shower enclosed in a perspex box. He earns $5 a night. He said at least he could afford to buy food.
I asked him what he would do if he could do anything in the world. He didn’t understand my question. He couldn’t comprehend that in some countries, if you have enough brains and motivation, you can pretty much do anything you want. Once someone translated it to him, he smiled at me and said: I’d be a doctor. To help people.
He was beautiful, had a body to die for, and strangely took a shine to me perhaps because I was a white Western woman in a gay bar, but I suppose he may have also seen me as a way out of his situation. We spent time talking over a few days, and while his English was not great, he seemed sweet and kind, but also kind of sad. I think you have to be a certain type of person to take advantage of someone like that. I am not. I’m no Rhonda, but his plight still affected me deeply nonetheless.
For some reason, I’m not too sure why, this trip to Bali – of all the trips I have taken to South East Asia and third world countries generally – made me realise that the “stress” in my life is self-generated and self-defeating. Compared to Vedree and Jo Jo, my life is paradise. I think sometimes you need a hefty dose of reality from a beautiful people who give so much but have so little to realise that.
Terima kasih, Bali. I will see you next year and every year after that too.
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